Soon the traditional Edison light bulbs that have been staples for years will no longer be available. Incandescent light bulbs of 40 watts and above are being phased out using government incentives and edicts to force energy savings and likely will reduce the number of nuclear plants that will need to be built. The transition to energy-efficeint bulbs has been coming for quite some time. With motivation from sky-high electric bills, I have been trying to find suitable alternatives for about 15 years, but have only had mixed success. Here are things that I have learned that should help you get better prepared.
Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs have been my primary alternative until recently. I have a small stock of them that I am gradually using up. I would not get any more. A major reason is that I did not realize that they contained mercury when I purchased them. With all of the controversy over mercury pollution from large tube-type fluorescent lights a number of years ago, it is hard to believe that manufacturers did not learn their lesson. I never thought not to trust them. Another reason is that it takes considerable time for CFLs to turn on and then reach full intensity. This is annoying, and some CFLs do not fit a few of the lighting fixtgures that I have. Others are poor quality and prone to premature failure. One even corroded and came apart during my testing.
That leaves new LED replacement bulbs. They are likely the ultimate answer, and they have been appearing in more and more specialty applications. High cost has been a major factor, but considering lower maintenance costs and reduced accidents attributed to burned out traffic lights and tail lights, it can be well worth the added expense for more reliable, longer-life, more efficient bulbs. I remember the need to replace a bulb in the dashboard of an old car of mine. It cost a couple hundred dollars to disassemble the dashboard to replace a small bulb that cost pennies. Christmas lights are no fun either when it is hard to find bulbs that have burned out.
As far as finding replacements for standard higher watt bulbs, there are a number of challenges besides the cost. Although costs are starting to come down fairly rapidly, the cost to replace a single 100-watt light bulb is still about $25. However, there is no single replacement that is good for every application. Many LED bulbs are quite directional, cannot be dimmed and provide light that is much whiter than incandescent bulbs. This makes it difficult to mix bulbs, and each application can require a different configuration. Three-way LED replacement Bulbs, such as 50-100-150-watt equivalents, are not available as yet.
Things are gradually improving. A 100-watt equivalent bulb that I bought in late 2009 is very directional. It requires 13-watts of power and retailed for over $50. New ones only require 12-watts, are about $25 and much less directional. I am testing one in a floor lamp in my family room. It is much better than the earlier design. Drawbacks are that their “warm white” light still lacks the slightly yellow hue of an incandescent, and some lamp housings lack the clearance to accommodate the bigger bases of LED bulbs.
LED bulbs have a lot of overhead compared to old-style incandescent bulbs that only contain a filament. They typically have arrays of individual LEDs with heat sinks, rectifiers and cooling fans. I found that a Ground Fault Interrupter (circuit breaker) in the 30-plus-year-old main incoming electrical panel in my garage did not allow me to put an LED bulb in the ceiling above my bathroom sink. The LED bulb kept tripping the breaker. I either needed to use old bulbs or re-wire the bathroom. Because of situations like that and the need for 3-way lamps, I now have a few Edison bulbs that should suffice until LED alternatives become available to satisfy these needs.
Since stocks of old bulbs are disappearing and becoming more expensive, now is the time to learn about options, set expectations and get prepared. When I gradually got rid of CRT computer monitors and tube-type televisions, I did not necessarily see my electric bills drop. Sometimes they stayed the same or continued to rise even as usage dropped. In any event, I would have been much worse off had I not continued to adopt new technology to improve efficeiency. Expect benefits like these to continue for many years to come.
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Tom Rockwood was formerly Corporate Engineering Manager for Energy and Material Resources at AT&T.